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  • "Backward Gypsies," Soviet CitizensThe All-Russian Gypsy Union, 1925–28
  • Brigid O'Keeffe (bio)

In 1926, the Commissariat of Enlightenment (Narkompros) conceded that Gypsies posed serious challenges to the Soviet Union's all-encompassing modernization aims. In a memorandum detailing its recent successes in educating minority peoples, Narkompros singled out the empire's Gypsies as a people so peculiar, perplexing, and "backward" that they had thus far escaped the focused attention of political-enlightenment workers. "This nationality," Narkompros officials explained, is

extremely scattered—it leads a nomadic way of life and for now has settled only in small part. It lacks … a written language and is almost universally illiterate; it is isolated from surrounding nationalities; as a consequence of economic needs and poverty, a number of Gypsies tend to such antisocial pursuits as horse-stealing, thievery, begging, and the like; and this provokes distrust among the settled population.

Yet despite their overwhelming "backwardness" and subversive tendencies, Narkompros declared, Gypsies were "still another people [narodnost´] that has begun to awake to conscious civic life and to lay their claim to cultural-enlightenment activity."1 [End Page 283]

That the Soviet Union's Gypsies were undergoing a national awakening—or any awakening at all—initially came as encouraging news to Narkompros and other Soviet officials. Soviet nationality policy, after all, did not provide officials with a detailed plan for the transformation of "backward" Gypsy nomads into conscious Soviet citizens. Yet nationality policy did promise minority peoples a generous platform from which even Gypsies could smoothly transition from backwardness to enlightened Sovietism.2 In the first years of Soviet rule, few officials expected representatives of an unheard-of Romani intelligentsia to step forward as political entrepreneurs, let alone to demand that the Soviet state fulfill its promises to all nationalities, and to Roma in particular. Fewer still expected that an organization by the name of the All-Russian Gypsy Union would challenge reigning notions of what it meant to be Soviet. It even occurred to a few officials in Moscow that the appearance of a group of Romani intellectuals preaching the word of Lenin could be nothing more than a typical Gypsy ruse. For a brief period in the mid-1920s, however, many Soviet officials welcomed the All-Russian Gypsy Union and its Romani youth activists as a potentially convenient answer to the empire's thorny "Gypsy question." [End Page 284]

This article examines the short-lived All-Russian Gypsy Union and the political struggles of its organizers, the heirs of Moscow's prerevolutionary Romani intelligentsia. A product of the largely unscripted opportunities offered minority peoples by Soviet nationality policy, the All-Russian Gypsy Union provided Romani activists a space within which they fashioned themselves into citizens on a civilizing mission and developed the political, cultural, and social skills necessary for engaging the Soviet nationality regime. In their brief tenure as All-Russian Gypsy Union members, Romani activists assimilated the language and mores of Sovietism and learned to make effective political use of both their minority status and ascribed "backwardness." Through their embrace of Soviet nationality policy, Moscow's Romani activists assumed the Bolshevik mission to incarnate the merger between civilizer and civilized. Shrewdly asserting themselves not only as "backward Gypsies" but also as Soviet citizens, All-Russian Gypsy Union activists integrated themselves and others into the Soviet project. Although "Gypsiness" was officially regarded as the antithesis of the advanced civilization promised Roma by the October Revolution, the All-Russian Gypsy Union and its Romani activists nonetheless came to embody the Soviet ideal of a modern citizenry composed of conscious, disciplined, self-mastering, and enlightened individuals.3

Late Imperial Russia's Romani Intelligentsia

In memoirs composed for a late socialist audience, I. I. Rom-Lebedev vividly recalled his first glimpse of a "live Gypsy." Then a small child living with his maternal Russian grandmother in Vilnius, Rom-Lebedev was startled one day when a swarthy male stranger unexpectedly knocked at his grandmother's door. After exchanging pleasantries with the home's matriarch and offering sweets to [End Page 285] the children, this "dark-faced" man abruptly departed, taking Rom-Lebedev's sisters with him. Though this encounter terribly confused Rom-Lebedev at...


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